Given her relatively privileged position - teaching career, university degree, movement in Parisian intellectual circles - de Beauvoir had never felt much of a sense of injustice or inequality.
This philosophical base raises it above other feminist writing, and makes it fascinating reading. The work spans pages and is not easy to summarise. Throughout history, men have differentiated and defined women in reference to themselves, rather than as beings in their own right. A person is a man, and no more explanation is necessary He is the subject, he is Absolute - she is the Other.
And when a group in society is made inferior in this way, they become inferior through lost opportunities and debasement. Men do not feel they have to justify themselves on any objective basis, but get their feeling of superiority from not being women. Today we are familiar with such a truth, but imagine the affront it caused in bourgeois France sixty years ago. De Beauvoir expresses her amazement that although women make up half the human race, they can still be discriminated against.
She observes that in democracies men like to say that they see women as equal or democracy would be a lie , but their attitudes on many levels tell a different story. De Beauvoir goes back to our earliest conceptions of biology to show how science itself served to reduce the power and potency of the female in favour of the male.
Yet in conception, de Beauvoir notes, neither male or female gamete is superior to the other; rather, they both lose their total individuality when the egg is fertilised. From puberty to menopause she is at the mercy of a body changing itself according to reproductive needs, and must put up with a monthly reminder of this.
Moreover, the more intense emotionality of women is related to irregularities in secretions in the endocrine system, which have an effect on the nervous system.
However, menopause can bring liberation, as a woman is no longer determined or judged according to the childbearing function. Moreover, while animals can be studied as static organisms, it is much harder to make assessments of people as male or female human beings, since our sex does not define us in the way that it does other animals. Physical inferiority, for instance, becomes meaningless if there is an absence of violence and wars.
If society is different, so the evaluation of physical attributes changes. In childhood there is no difference between the sexes in terms of what they are capable. Differentiation begins when boys are told of their superiority and how they need to prepare for the difficult, heroic path ahead. Urinating also produces a sexual difference: For the girl it is the doll which becomes the alter ego. So girls learn that to please they must abdicate their power and independence.
Women are not socially independent but form a part of the groups governed and defined by men. Any club or social service they set up are all within the framework of the masculine universe. Their mythical roles are always secondary; they dream the dreams of Man.
Since birth is tied to death, Woman condemns man to finitude. Women have also been seen as sorceresses and enchantresses who cast a spell on man. Man both fears and desires woman.
Christianity spiritualised woman, assigning to her beauty, warmth, intimacy, and the role of pity and tenderness. She was no longer tangible and her mystery deepened.
She is a prize to be won, the dream within which all other dreams are enfolded. On the positive side, Woman has always inspired Man to exceed his own limits. Particularly in richer and freer countries, many women would feel that the book is outdated, that equality is real, or at least the gaps in equality are bridgeable, and that girls have futures every bit as bright as boys.
Indeed, that de Beauvoir is often overlooked as a philosopher only proves her point that it is mostly men who end up writing the history of disciplines - and it is not surprising that they first focus on the contributions of others of their sex. The fact is that we are not blank slates in terms of gender, but are born with certain behavioural tendencies if we are male or female. Conditioning is definitely real, as she pointed out, yet it is not the whole story, and we will only be able to counter the limitations put on women by also understanding the biological differences.
The more we know about our bodies and brains, the less biology will be destiny. If you are female, reading The Second Sex will remind you of the progress made for women in the last 60 years.
If you are male, it will help you understand the slightly different universe that woman inhabit, even today. Her mother was a devout Catholic and she was sent to a prestigious convent school. Through her childhood she was very religious and considered becoming a nun, but at 14 became an atheist.
Studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, she wrote a thesis on Leibniz. In a national exam that ranked students, she came second only to Sartre whom she had already met and was also the youngest person ever to pass. In she was sent by the French government to the United States to give university lectures on contemporary French literature. She travelled widely, and wrote several travel diaries about her journeys through China, Italy and America, which she visited several times.
She continued her literary and activist work until her death in